The Manifestos 2017 – a library and information studies perspective

Parliament

Houses of Parliament. (CC-BY ijclark)

You may have noticed there’s an election on the way (hands up if you are fed up with it already *raises hands*). Although it is only a few weeks away now, it already feels like a depressing long slog towards a grimly predictable outcome. There is one reason and one reason only why we are having an election, and that’s because Theresa May wants to shore up her government as we enter into negotiations with the EU (negotiations that we won’t have a say in, despite the fact the referendum last year offered no mandate for any particular outcome) – so much for the Fixed Term Parliament Act.

Anyway, I decided now the Tory manifesto has been published, it would be a good idea to scan through all of the three main parties’ programmes to see how they look from a LIS (library and information sciences) perspective. Of course, no-one is going to vote purely on the basis of policies related to LIS (at least I hope not), but I thought it would be interesting nonetheless. Identifying a few key terms, I scanned each of the manifestos across five key areas: libraries, data, privacy, freedom of information and research. I may have missed some key elements in running these in-text searches, so they aren’t fool-proof (please say in the comments if I have missed anything obvious!).  The policies are presented below with direct quotes from the individual manifestos.

Libraries

Labour Manifesto

Libraries are vital social assets, valued by communities across the country. We will ensure libraries are preserved for future generations and updated with wi-fi and computers to meet modern needs. We will reintroduce library standards so that government can assess and guide councils in delivering the best possible service.

Conservative Manifesto

N/A

Liberal Democrat Manifesto

Set up a £2 billion Rural Services Fund of capital investment to enable communities to establish a local base from which to co-locate services such as council offices, post offices, children’s centres, libraries and visiting healthcare professionals.

Data

Labour Manifesto

Labour is committed to growing the digital economy and ensuring that trade agreements do not impede cross-border data flows, whilst maintaining strong data protection rules to protect personal privacy.

We all need to work harder to keep children safe online. Labour will ensure that tech companies are obliged to take measures that further protect children and tackle online abuse. We will ensure that young people understand and are able to easily remove any content they shared on the internet before they turned 18.

Conservative Manifesto

Where we believe people need more protections to keep them safe, we will act to protect them. We will give people new rights to ensure they are in control of their own data, including the ability to require major social media platforms to delete information held about them at the age of 18, the ability to access and export personal data, and an expectation that personal data held should be stored in a secure way. To create a sound ethical framework for how data is used, we will institute an expert Data Use and Ethics Commission to advise regulators and parliament on the nature of data use and how best to prevent its abuse. The Commission will help us to develop the principles and rules that will give people confidence that their data is being handled properly. Alongside this commission, we will bring forward a new data protection law, fit for our new data age, to ensure the very best standards for the safe, flexible and dynamic use of data and enshrining our global leadership in the ethical and proportionate regulation of data. We will put the National Data Guardian for Health and Social Care on a statutory footing to ensure data security standards are properly enforced. We will continue with our £1.9 billion investment in cyber security and build on the successful establishment of the National Cyber Security Centre through our worldleading cyber security strategy. We will make sure that our public services, businesses, charities and individual users are protected from cyber risks. We will further strengthen cyber security standards for government and public services, requiring all public services to follow the most up to date cyber security techniques appropriate.

And we will take up leadership in a new arena, where concern is shared around the world: we will be the global leader in the regulation of the use of personal data and the internet.

Liberal Democrats Manifesto

N/A

Privacy

Labour

Labour is committed to growing the digital economy and ensuring that trade agreements do not impede cross-border data flows, whilst maintaining strong data protection rules to protect personal privacy.

Conservative

In addition, we do not believe that there should be a safe space for terrorists to be able to communicate online and will work to prevent them from having this capability.

For the sake of our economy and our society, we need to harness the power of fast-changing technology, while ensuring that our security and personal privacy – and the welfare of children and younger people – are protected.

It is in no-one’s interest for the foundations of strong societies and stable democracies – the rule of law, privacy and security – to be undermined.

If we are going to respond to rapid changes in technology, we need government to make Britain the best place in the world to set up and run modern businesses,
bringing the jobs of the future to our country; but we also need government to create the right regulatory frameworks that will protect our security and personal privacy, and ensure the welfare of children and younger people in an age when so much of life is conducted online.

Liberal Democrats

Oppose Conservative attempts to undermine encryption.

Notify innocent people who have been placed under targeted surveillance where this can be done without jeopardising ongoing investigations.

Roll back state surveillance powers by ending the indiscriminate bulk collection of communications data, bulk hacking, and the collection of internet connection records.

Freedom of Information

Labour

We will extend the Freedom of Information Act to private companies that run public services.

Conservatives

N/A

Liberal Democrats

End the ministerial veto on release of information under the Freedom of Information Act, and take steps to reduce the proportion of FOI requests where information is withheld by government departments.

Research

Labour

A Labour government will ensure that the UK maintains our leading research role by seeking to stay part of Horizon 2020 and its successor programmes and by welcoming research staff to the UK. We will seek to maintain membership of (or equivalent relationships with) European organisations which offer benefits to the UK such as Euratom and the European Medicines Agency. We will seek to ensure that Britain remains part of the Erasmus scheme so that British students have the same educational opportunities after we leave the EU.

Conservative

We will deliver this and ensure further growth so that overall, as a nation, we meet the current OECD average for investment in R&D – that is, 2.4 per cent of GDP – within ten years, with a longer-term goal of three percent. We will increase the number of scientists working in the UK and enable leading scientists from around the world to work here. We will work hard to ensure we have a regulatory environment that encourages innovation.

Our world-beating universities will lead the expansion of our R&D capacity. We must help them make a success of their discoveries – while they have a number of growing investment funds specialising in spin-outs, we have more to do to replicate the success of similar university funds in the United States.

To fix that, we will work to build up the investment funds of our universities across the UK. We want larger, aggregated funds to increase significantly the amounts invested in and by universities. We want universities to enjoy the commercial fruits of their research, through funds that are large enough to list, thereby giving British investors a chance to share in their success.

Liberal Democrats

Protect the science budget, including the recent £2 billion increase, by continuing to raise it at least in line with inflation. Our long-term goal is to double innovation and research spending across the economy. We would guarantee to underwrite funding for British partners in EU-funded projects such as Horizon 2020 who would suffer from cancellation of income on Brexit.

It Was Nationalism Wot Won It

Image c/o Brad Hammonds on Flickr.

It’s taken me some time to process the outcome of last week’s election. A part of me has been in denial ever since waking up that Friday morning and discovering that not only had the Tories garnered more seats than Labour, but had also managed to garner a majority (albeit a fairly slim one). The one small bright spot for me? That UKIP failed to succeed in increasing their number of MPs in Kent, indeed, managing to lose their only MP in the county. Small comfort when their share of the vote massively increased of course.

Of course, in many respects, I shouldn’t be too disappointed. I’m not a Labour voter after all. However, I am “of the left” so whilst I wasn’t a supporter I would obviously have preferred a Labour government to a Tory one, no matter how far to the right the Labour party resides (for all the predictable blather from the right-wing press, they hardly stood on a socialist platform). But the sheer horror of the reality of a majority government is already starting to unfold with the attack on Human Rights legislation and proposed restrictions on freedom of speech (who said the Right doesn’t do authoritarianism?). Whilst I have my issues with the Labour party, and whilst they may have a dubious record on surveillance, I certainly feel like my civil liberties would have been afforded more protection under Miliband than Cameron (again, political rhetoric in general would suggest this runs against what the left and the right stand for).

What is clear to me is that nationalism was the winner in this election. Varying types of nationalism of course, but nationalism nonetheless. A more benign, civic nationalism in Scotland, and a resurgent English nationalism (perhaps fuelled in part by Tory propaganda about the impact of SNP influence in Westminster). I have my issues with nationalism in general, but I understand that, on the face of it at least, Scottish nationalism is at least benign in comparison to its English counterpart. Racism and xenophobia certainly play no part in the agenda of the SNP. The same cannot be said for the English variant of course.

And this is where the problem lies, I believe, for the Labour party if it is to have any hope of forming a government of any description in 2020 (whether in coalition or, seemingly unlikely, a majority government). The 2015 general election seems, to me anyway, to be a classic case of the Conservative approach to limiting the power and influence of the working class. As has always been the case, nationalism seeks to divide the working class, playing on fear as well as evoking a sense of patriotism. It has been a long-held tactic of the right to play on these fears and thus divide the working class, ensuring that any party that represents their interests has little chance of gaining traction.

Indeed, this is evidence of precisely this tactic being employed by the Conservatives and the Liberals between 1918-1922, as Selina Todd explains in her excellent The People: The Rise and Fall of the Working Class:

“After 1918 both Liberals and Conservatives worked hard to forge mutually beneficial alliances in English, Welsh and Scottish municipal politics. These alliances were, as the historian James Smyth points out, ‘always for one purpose – to keep Labour out of office’. They did so primarily by courting the vote of those electors who swelled the ranks of organisations like the Middle Class Union, and whose anxieties about taxation and working-class independence most Liberal and Conservative politicians shared. But these parties also offered a negative appeal to working-class voters, by promoting an anti-socialist message that stressed its links to ‘foreign’ Bolshevism, violence, tyranny and economic instability. Voting Conservative was, for some working-class men, a vote that marked them out as patriots…”

In this case, whilst there doesn’t as yet appear to be any data to corroborate it, it would appear that playing on the ‘fear’ of Scottish nationalism influencing Westminster led to some voters swinging behind the Tories.

Certainly the decline in the working class vote has been identified as a prime cause for Labour’s failure to turn their expected minority government into a reality. Initial voting analysis provided by the House of Commons Library indicates that the steady decline of the working class vote has continued in this election. According to Jon Trickett, Labour MP for Hemsworth, the figures show that whilst the middle class Labour voter has remained steady, the working class has steadily declined:

2005 – 48% DE voters

2010 – 40%

2015 – 37%

For AB, C1 and C2 voters, Labour actually managed to make small increases on 2010.

As was expected, a Labour failure has brought out the Blairites who argue that a “return to the centre ground” is where electoral success lays. Of course, by “centre ground” they actually mean middle class voters, because that is the demographic New Labour acolytes are most interested in. “Aspiration” is already the keyword in the leadership campaign as the race to become The New Blair starts to take shape. Given Ed Miliband managed to marginally increase the middle class vote, it would appear that the “centre ground” should not be the prime concern for a party that was built to represent the interests of the working class.

For me it seems clear where the fault lines were in Labour’s election campaign. They made the grave error in 2010 of letting the Conservative party seize the narrative about the economic crisis. Whatever the reality of the situation (ie that Cameron and Osborne backed Labour spending and offered no alternative when the crash came), the image has stuck in the mind that Labour, once more, brought down the economy, like they always do (certainly that is a line that I often hear from my parents, both working class). That this was not effectively challenged was fatal and allowed the Tories to point the finger at Labour as a risky bet for a safe economy (of course, the Tories have pursued roughly similar policies since 2010, so not doubt there will be a further economic crash on their watch).

But they also failed to communicate a set of ideas that would alleviate the suffering of those at the bottom end of the income scale, those that have been hit hardest by five years of voodoo economics. The predatory capitalism analysis certainly rings true in terms of how our capitalist system operates in the United Kingdom, but what does it mean to someone being hammered by the bedroom tax, lower living standards, zero hour contracts and alike? It is the very people who the Labour party should represent that have been overlooked which has, as a result, hurt them greatly. It is not that Labour were too far left, nor even that they weren’t left enough, it’s simply that they didn’t manage to communicate effectively with those they were supposed to represent.

It would be, in my view, a fundamental mistake for the Labour party to further abandon the working class vote and chase after the middle class with talk of ‘aspiration’ and ‘wealth creators’. It is an extension of the same fundamental misunderstanding about the election in 1997 in which any Labour leader would have triumphed (I refuse to buy the narrative that Blair was somehow the man who rescued Labour, it was the Tories that rescued Labour). Of course, Labour may well choose this route in a desperate attempt to get to power by being ‘nice Tories’. I’m afraid that if they do, they will have already lost the election in 2020.

“Plebgate” is not the only reason Andrew Mitchell should be sacked

Nearly a month on from the initial incident and “plebgate” is still at the top of the political agenda.  During Prime Minister’s Questions Ed Milliband claimed that Andrew Mitchell was “toast” over his altercation with police at the gates of Downing Street.  Now it appears that Mitchell denied swearing at all during the incident, something he had previously admitted to.

“Plebgate” has been rumbling along for weeks now with neither Mitchell or Cameron prepared to do the honourable thing (honour and politics have never been easy bedfellows). Despite the account of eventsrecorded in the police log, Cameron continues to stand by Mitchell, effectively smearing the police as liars in the process (either Mitchell is lying or the police are, clearly Cameron believes it is the latter). However, whilst the media and political focus has been on Mitchell and his verbal assault on a police officer, his record as International Development Secretary has not been subject to anywhere near as much public scrutiny.

During his time as Development Secretary, Andrew Mitchell developed a close friendship with the president of Rwanda, Paul Kagame.  Internal documents revealed as a result of a Freedom of Information request underline the strength of the relationship between the two men.  One memo stated:

“SofS [Mr Mitchell]… recalled how they had recently discussed that Rwanda is an excellent development and delivers results… We will continue to provide a significant proportion of the UK’s aid as budget support. We will continue to provide high levels of general budget support (of £37m annually).”

The memo continues:

“Secretary of State said this reflected the UK’s long-term support to Rwanda (including from the PM, who had visited as leader of the Opposition in 2006). Pres Kagame was very grateful.”

In one of his last acts as Secretary, Mitchell ordered £8m to be released in September with a further £8m in December for education and food security.  This despite previously blocking Britain’s £37m annual contribution to the Rwandan government in July.  The reason for the block? A visit to the Kivus region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo where Kagame’s forces have been accused of atrocities, including mass rape.

And here is the real problem, for Kagame’s human rights record is at best questionable, and at worst deserving of a prolonged visit to The Hague.  The allegations placed at his door are particularly shocking and disturbing, including the accusation by a French judge that he ordered the assassination of his predecessor, Juvenal Habyarimana.  An assassination that sparked the 1994 genocide that shocked the world.

In 2008, in an article called “A flawed hero“, The Economist suggested he was even more of an oppressive force than Robert Mugabe:

Although he vigorously pursues his admirers in Western democracies, he allows less political space and press freedom at home than Robert Mugabe does in Zimbabwe. He may be planning to bring Rwanda out of poverty in a generation but his prime goal is to maintain his Tutsi government in power until it is certain that the Tutsi people will not be massacred again. Anyone who poses the slightest political threat to the regime is dealt with ruthlessly.

Indeed, Human Rights Watch reports that:

…after years of intimidation and a further crackdown on independent media in 2010, there are almost no independent Rwandan journalists operating in Rwanda. Several leading independent journalists remain in exile…Threats and intimidation of human rights defenders by individuals close to the government, combined with a degree of self-censorship, have ensured that few Rwandan civil society groups publicly criticize the government’s human rights record.

And as for Rwanda’s involvement in eastern Congo (again, from The Economist article referred to above):

“…where some 5m people are said to have died in conflict, a civil war in which Rwanda has been, and remains, deeply involved. Mr Kagame justifies his intervention on the grounds of Rwanda’s own security—but his army reportedly made £20m a month from mining coltan in 2000 and still exports quantities of diamonds and gold that were mined in Congo.”

Despite all these concerns about Kagame from human rights groups (and concerns raised by his ministerial colleague), Andrew Mitchell still decided to release funding.  There are those that make the argument that we shouldn’t be releasing funds to foreign nations at all in the current economic climate.  I disagree, I think we should fulfil our obligations in terms of delivering aid.  However, I do not think that this extends to the delivery of aid to dictators and human rights abusers.  Consequently, I do not see how we can continue to provide funding to the regime in Rwanda when they are engaged in slaughter across the border in the DRC.

In terms of Mitchell’s position within the government, it is clear that he has to go.  Effectively smearing the police is bad enough (it should be reason enough for his dismissal) but continuing to provide aid to a despotic regime engaged in the most horrific human rights abuses makes “plebgate” appear as if it were an entertaining sideshow.  That this causes a storm of controversy whilst the mass rape and slaughter in the DRC provokes barely a murmur, underlines the lamentable state of political debate in this country.  One hopes thatnow the Labour party have raised the issue it will lead to more serious questions about both Andrew Mitchell’s role in government and this government’s foreign aid policy.  And I do mean serious questions, not the kind of swivel-eyed lunacy that normally dominates discussions on foreign aid.  Although I guess that, like Mitchell doing the honourable thing, is too much to expect.

 UPDATE

Shortly after writing this post, Andrew Mitchell resigned (chalk that up as a ‘kill’?).  However, the resignation was not over Rwanda but “plebgate”.  It seems to me that, in a twisted way, “plebgate” offered Mitchell a handy get out as scrutiny grew over the release of aid to Rwanda.  I would not be surprised if this scrutiny dies down now that he has resigned, indeed, I expect it to. After all the furore over “plebgate” and the trouble it caused, it appears it has actually provided a convenient cover for the Tories.  So, the Tories are happy, the media are happy (they got a scalp), Labour are happy (they also got a scalp), the voters are happy (he got what he deserved for being rude to the police) and the people of Rwanda and the DRC? Well, I’m sure they will soon be forgotten about.  It’s what we do best.

 

Surveillance in a democratic society

Despite the initial belief by some that it was an elaborate April Fool’s joke, it has become clear that government proposals to monitor email and social networking are very real:

Ministers are to introduce a new law allowing police and security services to extend their monitoring of the public’s email and social media communications, the Home Office has confirmed.

It is expected that the new system will allow security officials to scrutinise who is talking to whom and exactly when the conversations are taking place, but not the content of messages.

Yet another attempt to strengthen the surveillance state within the UK and weaken hard won civil liberties.  And it is not clear that this legislation is even required to deal with the problem which it claims to resolve. As David Davis MP has pointed out, current legislation is sufficient to deal with any existing need to monitor an individual perceived as a ‘threat’.

And it is not just the fact that the legislation is unnecessary that calls into question government proposals.  As pointed out in the Telegraph today, the plans are ‘practically impossible’. Trefor Davies, Chief Technology Officer at business internet service provider Timico, points out the obvious:

“The problem is that it is too easy to avoid detection on the internet. Proxy services provide anonymity for web users – Google “free proxy server” and you will find 33million results,” said Davies. “A culture of anonymity online means such people could not be targeted for copyright-infringing activities under the Digital Economy Act (eg music downloading) and we would be making it easier for people to go undetected when doing indisputably bad things such as accessing illegal child abuse material. More prosaically, proxy servers are also often the source of malware.”

So illiberal (and where are the Liberal Democrats on this issue?) and ‘practically impossible’.  One wonders why exactly the government are pursuing this policy, particularly when Tory minister in the (very recent) past have been so keen to publicly demonstrate their party’s opposition to state surveillance.

But there is a further issue here.  This government have repeatedly claimed that this is (or will be) the most transparent government in British history.  Transparency is supposedly at the heart of government policy.  Despite this, we have seen increasing attacks on the Freedom of Information Act.  Furthermore, we have witnessed government ministers,such as Michael Gove, challenging a ruling by the ICO that private emails allegedly related to departmental business must be disclosed.

And herein lies the problem.  There are increasing efforts by the state to prevent the electorate from gaining access to information about the workings of government whilst simultaneously attempting to obtain more information from us.  Increasingly it appears that politicians are no longer answerable to us, we are answerable to them.  This claim for more information from us whilst simultaneously wishing to restrict access to information from them is the clearest signal yet of how the power relationship has shifted in recent years.  We should be demanding greater surveillance of the state rather than accepting greater surveillance of us.  Because, in a democratic society, it should be us holding them to account rather than the other way round.